West Midlands Regional Genetics Lab case study

Work experience details

  • Organisation: West Midlands Regional Genetics Laboratory, Birmingham
  • Contact name: Kate Glover, Principal Scientist
  • Placement student names: Bethany Burns, Ishbir Narotra, Jessica Pritchard, Zoe Stroud, Stuart Woodcock, Alice Youngs
  • Placement title: Karyotyper
  • Dates of placement: July – September 2013

Background

The West Midlands Regional Genetics Laboratory (WMRGL) is a CPA-accredited laboratory that provides a comprehensive genetic testing service. The services provided are primarily used by National Health Service patients within the West Midlands region, however, lab staff also carry out tests for private consultants and hospitals and have contracts with healthcare institutions both nationally and internationally.

The department employs over 160 scientific, technical and support staff and is directed by Mike Griffiths, Consultant Clinical Scientist. The laboratory provides a comprehensive range of genetic tests. In 2010/11 the lab processed over 48,000 samples; of these 28,000 were tested using molecular genetic techniques and 20,000 were tested for chromosomal anomalies using cytogenetic techniques.

The Summer 2013 placement programme was the first formal relationship between the University of Birmingham (UoB) and the WMRGL to provide opportunities specifically for UoB undergraduate Bioscience students to gain an insight into the workings of the laboratory by undertaking a short voluntary placement during the Summer vacation. The opportunity was advertised initially for two students and was promoted until beginning of February 2013 and was extremely popular, receiving almost 500 hits on Careers Network’s “Careers Connect” database alone.

As the position was a short voluntary placement, the University of Birmingham work experience bursaries were able to assist several students with their expenses. Find out more about our funding schemes.

Brief description of the opportunity

The following advert was promoted to students: A short voluntary placement has arisen within the Cytogenetics Department of the Regional Genetics lab for two biological science students with an interest in a career in Genetics to join our team and become competent in the identification of chromosomes and use of the image analysis software IKAROS. Training will be competence based and assessed within the laboratory. You will also be introduced to all relevant codes of practice, health and safety procedures and operational procedures that are followed in this busy working clinical laboratory. At the end of this period the candidate would be given the opportunity to experience many other areas of the laboratory mainly by work shadowing. The successful candidates will be based in the Regional Genetics Laboratory, Birmingham Women’s NHS Trust.

Interview with intern

Alice Youngs, BSc Human Biology

What made you apply for the opportunity?

Alice Youngs at the West Midlands Regional Genetics Lab

I heard about the opportunity during a talk on the Scientist Training Programme that was given by Kate Glover at the University during the Autumn term. During this talk the speakers continually highlighted the importance of experience and extra-curricular activities for the application. I found the opportunity on careers network and applied within a couple of weeks. I knew I was interested in going into clinical science and specifically genetics and I applied to a number of similar opportunities in other hospitals. This opportunity was my first choice as it allowed me to stay in Birmingham in my student house rather than moving to a new city and I also knew that members of the team had connections with the application process of the STP.

What were your preconceptions before starting the placement?

My preconceptions before starting the placement was 9-5 job full time in the laboratory. I was under the impression there would only be one or two other students on placement, so it was a happy surprise that there were others. I did think I would be trained on specific techniques in the laboratory as opposed to computer programmes and I am not disappointed. Although I knew what karyotyping did entail I was expecting to have had more training on the analysis of the chromosomes as opposed to just identifying the chromosomes, however I can now appreciate the difficulty of analysis and why this isn’t possible. I was also expecting to find it very challenging and expected to be doing very technically difficult tasks and although this has sometimes been the case, mainly in karyotyping, I have found a lot of the time I am undertaking activities such as slide cleaning and filing, which are not as advanced.

What do you hope to develop during the placement (in terms both of any specific understanding and also any employability skills that you wish to develop)?

I hope to develop more of an understanding of the genetic basis of disease and which chromosomal abnormalities results in which disease and knowledge that I can carry through to my studies of genetics in third year. More importantly I hope to gain and improve many employability and personal skills. I believe that my ability to be precise, thorough and careful will have greatly improved through this opportunity as well as my communication and organisation. Although I have always been complimented on hard work and punctuality this placement gives me the opportunity to demonstrate and identify all of these skills to future employers.

What are / were your first impressions?

My first impression was that everyone is very friendly and willing to go out of their way to help you and point you in the right direction. Everything was well organised including paperwork, supervisors, ID badges etc. I also quickly noticed how relaxed everyone was regarding dress code which made me feel immediately more comfortable but also how professional everyone remained. I also feel very comfortable to ask for the opportunity to move around the department and visit different teams and hubs. Overall I feel I have settled in quickly into the department with help from the other placement students and members of staff and I feel like I have been here a lot longer than three weeks.

What do you do on a day-to-day basis?

I am involved in karyotyping oncology cases. This role involves identifying the chromosomes, cutting them up and assigning them to the correct number. I was trained for the role using the website karyotutor and have been karyotyping real cases using the software ikaros since Friday of week one. There are occasionally periods where cells have not been scanned or selected and therefore there are no cases to karyotype, during these times I perform duties such as slide cleaning in the laboratory and slide filing. Slide cleaning involves using methanol to clean the slides so they can be filed for five years according to numerical order.

I have also been doing some administrative work with Kate Glover; so far this has involved phoning consultant secretaries and requesting the consultants email address in order to forward them user satisfaction surveys regarding microarray analysis. Kate is also planning to go through the referral system with me. I have also been doing some work the departmental office involving data input on previous employees.

Please provide an overview of your progress as you have gone through the placement (what you are up to, how the tasks are going, what support you’re getting, what the rest of the office team are like)

I believe I am progressing at a good speed, in terms of training I picked up karyotyping fairly quickly and can get a good number of cases done per day, if they are available. My supervisor, Suse, has been very friendly and helpful along with Kate and Katherine in the office who have been given up their spare time to give us advice and tips and also check our work before being submitted. Another student and I have had positive feedback from the other individuals in the office.

Slide cleaning and slide filing are not difficult tasks and therefore I only had to be shown once how this was to be carried out and the individuals in the lab are very welcoming. Again the administrative tasks have not proven to be demanding but have been a welcomed break from karyotyping, the departmental team are very supportive and quick to answer any of my queries and I have found Kate Glover very supportive and communicating feedback to me frequently. I feel like I do not see a lot of my line manager however he is easy to locate if I have any problems and is quick to respond to my emails.

What would you encourage any of your peers seeking similar opportunities next year to consider (in terms of application and also what to do when undertaking a placement)?

In terms of what to consider when looking for a placement I would say the duration of the placement is important and the hours you will be expected to work. A longer placement, such as three months, does mean the individual has to be willing to give up their entire summer however it does allow you to become a member of the team and full time member of staff which looks great on the CV. Also if picking a longer placement is important to be sure you know exactly what your role will be in order to know exactly what you will be getting from the experience. It is always great to email and ask questions regarding the duration and role of the placement before applying as it draws attention to your interest in the role and helps you understand if the placement is for you. Once in the placement I would recommend taking every opportunity and experience as many different teams and departments. I would also recommend getting involved in the social aspects of work as well such as sports days or community days to give a good impression that people will remember you by.

Interview with employer

Kate Glover, Principal Scientist

What was your rationale for offering a work experience placement to a University of Birmingham student? 

Kate Glover at the West Midlands Regional Genetics Lab

We wanted to offer young people the opportunity to experience working life in a busy diagnostic laboratory. The advantages this offers them are numerous and include gaining life experience, making informed choices about careers and making them more attractive to potential future employers. As a department we employ many new graduates but find that those who have had “real” work experience find it easier to settle into working life. They are more informed about their career choices and usually have more focus about what they want to achieve.

What kinds of projects did your placement student work on/what did they do?

Our students were placed in diagnostic areas throughout the laboratory and given full competence based training in key transferable skills such as karyotyping, DNA extraction and basic sequencing, cell culture preparation, aseptic techniques and cell bank technology. Each student was assigned a training mentor and given the opportunity to gain wider experience through work shadowing in additional areas.

How did it benefit your business to take on placement students?

The laboratory staff have enjoyed having the students here on placement as they provide a different dynamic to the working environment. We have also benefitted from a stronger relationship with the University of Birmingham.

Are there any employability skills which you observed that the students exhibited, or conversely which felt they were lacking?

The students were keen and enthusiastic to learn new skills and picked up fairly complex laboratory techniques, for the most part very quickly. Their time keeping and attendance has been excellent and they are all pleasant friendly individuals and have worked well as a key member of a team.

Based on your experience, what advice would you give to students or employers considering work experience placements?

I would whole heartedly recommend taking on work experience placements and interns. The experience is a positive one for all concerned. It is an opportunity to offer an incredibly valuable chance to young people who will enter the work place as more informed and mature employees.

Would you recommend offering placements to University of Birmingham students to others?

Absolutely!

Based on the experience of students from the University of Birmingham, are you satisfied that the University of Birmingham is helping to provide its students and graduates with the skills and aptitudes required in today’s careers?

I feel that the opportunities available to these students are amazing. It’s a tough world out there and UoB are helping these students make informed choices about their future careers and providing them with the resources and support to do that.

Posted on Friday 22nd November 2013